Reemergence of African American-centered theatre aims to increase local Black representation on stage
Many members and fans of the local theatre scene are pushing for heightened involvement from artists of color within the arts community.
The African American Repertory Theatre of Virginia (AART) is leading that charge as it aims to realign the performing communities in Richmond, taking the challenge of diversity within the arts in its own hands and giving Black artists both a space and a voice.
AART may sound familiar, as it was originally led by the artistic direction of Derome Scott Smith. Back when the company was first founded in 2000, it originally went by the name Living Word Stage Company, but it was later changed to the African American Repertory Theatre in 2010.
Smith was led to start up his own company in part to uphold the ideals introduced to him by the late Ernie McClintock, director of Jazz Actors Theatre. Both Smith and Iman Shabazz, current artistic director of AART, and a previous McClintock student, attest to the former director playing a vital role in the community, as well as being an excellent mentor and teacher.
“He is a man who made remarkable contributions to the Black theatre movement, and to theatre in general,” Shabazz said.
McClintock started a theatre of his own, the Afro American Repertory Theatre, in 1965. McClintock’s teachings regarding Black theatre and the Black aesthetic resonated with Smith, and he made moves to do his part in teaching his community the same way.
Cosmetic diversity seems to be what the city of Richmond has deemed as sufficiently inclusive. This lack of effort has taken many forms, but within the performing arts, the most notable ones are the fallacy of “colorblind casting”, which means casting an actor or two of color in traditionally white roles.
Dr. Tawnya Pettiford-Wates, artistic director of The Conciliation Project said, “In a lot of cases, the idea of being inclusive in Richmond community means colorblind- and that’s why we need AART.”
McClintock and Pettiford-Wates both believed this less authentic representation might fill seats, but fails to appropriately represent communities of color to the fullest extent.
Pettiford-Wates spoke plainly of RVA’s need to combat this issue, and having organizations like The African American Repertory of Virginia is part of that fight.
Both Pettiford-Wates and Shabazz agree that the goal of AART has always been focused on providing a very necessary Black space for the community.
“…And in that makes it [AART] an educational institution as well- it makes it a beacon of light for young people. They can see themselves onstage and know that they too can tell their story.
Shabazz said, “[the goal of AART is to] make theatre a committed part of the community’s function.”
“Richmond needs a culture institution whose mission it is is to tell the story of Black people, Black history, and Black culture- and that’s what AART is about,” Pettiford-Wates said.
Despite their hard work, AART has dealt with serious setbacks over the past several years, as Smith suffered some health issues that forced him to step down as artistic director. In an effort to keep the theatre running, the torch was passed to D.L. Hopkins, another former student of McClintock’s, but eventually the hiatus became official.
Fortunately, Shabazz has decided to don the hat of artistic director in an effort to lead the company to success.
Shabazz stated that a large component of running a theatre company is the stabilization of infrastructure. Considering this proved as a previous roadblock, he has decided to make that, in addition to fundraising, AART’s primary goal at the moment.
Shabazz hosted a mixer back in the winter, gathering many of Richmond’s creative minds to speak about the Black Aesthetic and its importance to both theatre and their community.
The next event for AART is the Gala Evening of Stars on May 1st. This event is being hosted in partnership with The Conciliation Project.
Taking place at the Grace Center Banquet Hall on 1302 Victor Street, the event will spotlight some of the Richmond area’s shining actors, musicians, vocalists, dancers and spoken word artists. For only $20 a seat, those who come out to the event will earn a sneak peek at what RVA really has to offer, in addition to what the African American Repertory Theatre plans to showcase in the years to come.
In addition to the showcase and great catered food from Catering by Blair, a silent auction, raffle, and gift basket giveaways are also planned for the evening.
For more information or any inquiries, contact Iman Shabazz at firstname.lastname@example.org. To purchase tickets, visit aartofva.org.
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